Considering I never set out to be a marathon runner, I've been very content with my running career and what I've accomplished with a sport that seemed nearly impossible to me a decade ago. I started out as someone who could barely run a city block, and now I have four marathons under my belt. But that doesn't mean I don't still have greater goals when it comes to training. A goal of mine that's remained fairly consistent over the years: run each race a little faster than the last.
I've met this goal quite a few times — but a few times I haven't. Blame it on race-day conditions, poor training, or just the way the cookie crumbles. Whatever the reason, a meaningful pace decrease each race is something that has evaded me more times than not. Although I know that plateauing in running — or fitness in general — is quite common, in anticipation of my next big race this fall, I've been doing everything I can to make sure I'm ready. I've started waking up earlier to sneak in a little workout. I've loaded up on summer-ready training gear like the UA Speedpocket Weightless 2-in-1 Shorts ($60). I've started going to bed earlier in hopes of helping my body recover quicker.
But before I fell back to my old training ways, I decided to talk to Coach Conor Nickel from the NYC-based treadmill studio Mile High Run Club to learn why exactly it is that runners like me don't get faster despite logging mile after mile. And just as I suspected, there's more than one culprit at play here.
1) There's a Lack of Consistency in Training
Nickel explained this is actually the main reason runners plateau, but he insisted that becoming consistent week in and week out ensures improvements will follow. The key here is to give yourself time to see change. "Give yourself time to build up some mileage and turn up the intensity of your interval work," he says. "You will not see big changes in your fitness after one run or one hard workout," he adds. "Again, you have to be consistent over several weeks, so plan it out, and know that every day and every run has a purpose."
If you're really serious about targeting a specific time goal, Nickel notes that race-pace specific work is crucial. "One thing coaches talk about all the time is the mindset of becoming comfortable being uncomfortable," he says. "If you are aiming to run a certain pace for a 5K or a half marathon, you need to spend time training at those specific paces." Ultimately, he explains that sticking to your schedule ensures that every run leading up to your goal is a meaningful one. "Every day serves as a part of the plan leading into that goal race to make sure your speed is there for you," he says.
2) There's a Lack of the Right Mentality
"Running is a sport where you have to be mentally tough," Nickel says. "Before you can get better at it, you have to want to get better at it." Now I admit, when Nickel first said this, I thought to myself, "Of course, I want to get faster!" But then I thought back to my previous training: what had I done to actually work on my speed? Other than just running and looking down at my watch periodically, I realized not much.
Nickel explained this mentality further, noting a fellow coach at Mile High Run Club whose motto while training for a big race is: you need to find glory in the grind. "Learn how to enjoy the hard work and embrace the struggle — knowing it will help lead to the outcome you want," he added. Bottom line: if runners want to truly see speed improvements, they must be willing to put the work in, and yep, get a little cozy with that uncomfortable feeling.
3) There's a Lack of Diversity in Training
No, this doesn't necessarily mean incorporating cross-training into your routine. (Although strength training and stretching are important areas for runners!) Rather, diversity here means a difference in run distance and pace.
"Running is always about progression," says Nickel. "So your training should reflect that." He suggested throwing in some shorter, faster runs or increasing mileage. So if you usually run two to three days a week, try running four to five days for a few weeks. But the biggest addition you can make is adding in one to two days per week of interval training, says Nickel.
"Whether you are getting ready for a one-mile race or a marathon, intervals have a place in every training plan," he says, noting intervals help increase aerobic endurance, increase the amount of oxygen to the body, and also allow you to test out faster race paces.